Should Seattle Declare a Moratorium on Selling Off City-Owned Land?

The current communications shop owned by the City of Seattle the mayor wants to sell for $11 million.

When Mayor Jenny Durkan announced her “Building a Bridge to Housing for All” plan to sell a prime city-owned parcel at 1933 Minor Ave in the heart of Denny Triangle for $11 million in order to fund some “bridge” housing and rental vouchers, some lamented the permanent loss of public land for temporary relief.

Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda was among the skeptics. At a Welcoming Wallingford meeting on Wednesday, Councilmember Mosqueda proposed a stricter policy in selling off public land, and even kicked around the idea of a moratorium on sales of city-owned land until such a policy is in place. She said that Mayor Durkan asked her to sign on to the plan. However, Councilmember Mosqueda said she declined because she was concerned about losing public land.

“The thing with funding for those who are unsheltered–we need that desperately as well–but it should go into capital projects so we’re actually building the housing,” Councilmember Mosqueda said. “One thing I can put out there is there a possibility of a moratorium on sales until we can get those conditionalities worked out.”

Seattle’s Communication Shop

The parcel in question here houses a communication shop–a one-story structure mainly for storing vehicles while they get worked on–for the city’s information technology (IT) department. 40-story towers are sprouting all around the site, close to Denny Way and some of the tallest height limits in Seattle. In the same megablock, Miami-based developer Crescent Heights plans twin 39-story towers at 1901 Minor Ave. If that project goes forward, tower spacing rules would likely shrink the buildable envelope of the communication shop site; one of the towers would be close to the lot line and require an 80-foot buffer above the tower podium (the first eight floors).

The communication shop is represented by the low-slung white silhouette to the right of the twin 39-story towers Crescent Heights has planned at 1901 Minor Ave. (Gensler)

The city’s justification for selling the site is that developing affordable highrises is challenging and private developers already bought up the properties neighboring the small site, Councilmember Mosqueda said. Having a small site limits redevelopment potential and even if a large enough site was pieced together, it’s true the Seattle Office of Housing and its non-profit partners have mostly shied away from highrise projects. A 13-story project planned in First Hill would be the first affordable highrise built in Seattle in more than 50 years.

Crescent Heights full block proposal includes 943 apartments. (Gensler)

A good bet is the City will sell its site to Crescent Heights since the developer has a bigger proposal it’s been simultaneously working through the permitting process that includes the City site–not to mention an award-winning experimental design they’ve been kicking around. The full block proposal has 943 apartments and 662 underground parking spots, compared to the 737 apartments and 424 parking spots planned on the smaller lot. Like the smaller proposal, it cleared design review in 2016, but still needs a master use permit. Both proposals vested before the Seattle City Council passed the Downtown/South Lake Union rezone, meaning the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) requirements wouldn’t automatically apply to them.

1933 Minor Avenue is just south of Denny Way. (Google Maps)

Tackling Underused Public Land

Councilmember Mosqueda wants a comprehensive city policy dealing with underused public land and suggested a city-run land bank could be a way to more proactively acquire land before it’s snapped up by private developers.

“I’ve been saying where’s the full map of all of the publicly available land so we can build on that land right now,” Councilmember Mosqueda said. “The city has a map. The county has a map, but it doesn’t sound like we have a full map yet. It sounds like one is coming in March, but I’m like it’s 2018; I want to know how many parcels of developable land that we have available that are not just sitting empty–like a lot–but also underutilized.”

There’s an argument that an underused public land survey should include land locked up in urban freeways and their interchanges and frontages. Freeway lids can unlock land such as Lid I-5’s proposals to reclaim more than a dozen city blocks adjoining the University District which are currently a tangle of on- and off- ramps. There’s also several proposals for a Downtown I-5 lid–and I’ve also thrown out the idea of removing I-5 entirely from Downtown Seattle, either of which could put public land to much better use.

A public land usage policy may have avoided some blunders. I wrote about the issue of squandering public lands back in 2015. The Seattle City Council has managed to let a property right under its nose go to waste for a decade: the long-embattled Civic Square project, also known as the empty pit across from city hall. An updated 57-story design appears finally to be on the path to actually getting built; the planned 520 apartments will be market-rate with the city pocketing $5.7 million for its affordable housing trust fund and $16 million from the purchase price. That $21.7 million the city is ahead could quickly get sunk into land costs if it hopes to acquire another site in the downtown core to build. Of course with the threat of a lawsuit weighing down the city’s options, the Civic Square deal may have been the best that could be made of the situation.

Acquiring land is one of the biggest hurdles affordable housing providers must negotiate. Typically non-profit builders seek city subsides to finance their projects after they’ve secured a site, which is an increasingly competitive bidding process as the real estate boom continues and prime sites get rarer. Better leveraging land the public already owns offers a way out of this conundrum. In some cases, perhaps public land can be leased rather than sold to keep the valuable sites in public hands. Additionally, to exert more control and pick up the pace of affordable development, Seattle could take a direct role in building public housing rather than relying so heavily on non-profit developers. Councilmember Mosqueda indicated she’s open to the idea of Seattle Office of Housing directly building public housing again.

The current communications shop owned by the City of Seattle the mayor wants to sell for $11 million. (Photo by Ryan Packer)

The communications shop site would have presented some big opportunities for public use. Perhaps a public library and community center (the first in either Cascade or South Lake Union) with several stories of mixed-income housing overhead? Even with a lot too hemmed in for a tower, worthwhile projects may have been possible.

Mayor Durkan’s Bridge Housing Plan

Meanwhile, Mayor Durkan’s press release focused on the perks funded by $11 million in proceeds from the sale: “This one-time investment would leverage $3.5 million for essential city services and $10.7 million for affordable housing, safer spaces for those without shelter, and provide housing stability for households on the verge of homelessness. The sale of the property located at 1933 Minor Avenue is expected to close in Summer 2018.”

  • $5.5 million in a Bridge Housing Investment Strategy to increase our capacity for people experiencing homelessness in new bridge housing and shelter. “This strategy will kick off with a project to serve chronically homeless women in our community by the end of Spring 2018 with additional solutions to be deployed later this year;”
  • $2 million for Seattle Rental Housing Assistance Pilot Program which is a rent voucher program Mayor Durkan outlined on the campaign trail last year.
  • $2.5 million relocating Seattle IT’s communications shop and acquiring a new lease;
  • $1 million for design costs for a new Seattle Fire Department facility; and,
  • $2 million upfront Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) payment for building affordable housing. “The city
    will be able to leverage the full payment of approximately $7.7 million several times over through other funding sources.”

In other words, $3.5 million (31%) of the $11 million sale itself will go toward things that aren’t helping housing affordability, the ostensible reason given for selling the land.

It appears Mayor Durkan currently has the support to pass the plan because four Councilmembers–Sally Bagshaw, Bruce Harrell, Debora Juarez, and Rob Johnson– have pledged support for the sale.

“Mayor Durkan’s proposal has strong support from the City Council because it will do what we’ve been trying to do for years: address the affordability crisis from many angles, moving people into and through managed shelter into respectful permanent housing,” Councilmember Bagshaw said in the press release.

“By funding new shelter and housing options and also including a payment to Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA), I am happy to see that these dollars would address both short and long term housing needs,” Councilmember Johnson added.

It’s interesting to see MHA contributions used to justify selling public land. Certainly the city extracts a benefit this way, but once land leaves public ownership it’s likely gone forever. Moreover, it’s a one-funding source and shelters and a rent voucher program would need a longer-term dedicated funding source to continue to make a difference.

“Leveraging one city property, we can provide essential services and attack our affordability crisis,” Mayor Durkan said in the press release. “There’s no quick or simple solution to solving this urgent challenge, but we can focus our efforts to rapidly deploy cost effective shelters to move people out of doorways and tents and into safer spaces.”

Temporary relief–rent vouchers, temporary shelters, and tiny homes on parking lots–is well and good, but, at the rate we’re at, a century from now we might look back and wonder where all Seattle’s public land went. Rather than selling off land to fund bridge housing, the more prudent move is likely to get additional affordable housing dollars elsewhere–whether an employee head tax, income tax, carbon tax, boosted housing levy, or anywhere really–and build on the land the public already owns. (Maybe we could even build on a city-owned golf course?)

What Is A Housing Emergency Really?

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

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I’m all in favor of an end to sales of public land in the city. Land prices tend to go up over time as we grow. Once a piece of public land is sold, getting something like that back again in the future will likely be much more expensive.

One alternative I’d like to see used more often is a long-term ground lease for currently underutilized properties where the city lacks either a plan or funding to redevelop it in the medium term. This would allow a private developer to build something and profit from it for a few decades, but the property would revert to the city at the end of the lease.

The school district currently has a few properties under such leases. They bring in some ongoing income to the district while at the same time leaving the land available for the district to use building schools in future generations.

Michael Jenkins

totally agree with your concerns. I used to administer this process for the City Council when I was on the policy staff – Central Staff. The process is certainly rigorous and often times Council develops a series of requirements on their purchase and sale agreements that implement policy goals like affordable housing in excess of what would be required under code. Still, I am concerned with spaces like the one you profiled (I pass by it going to and from work) since they have so much potential for public space or public good…thanks for the chat!

Michael Jenkins

The City actually has policies on surplus of City owned property. Here’s some info from the City website at Finance and Administrative Services. It’s a pretty rigorous process…

The City Council adopted Resolution 29799 in 1998 regarding the “Reuse or Disposal of City Property,” amending it in 2006 via Resolution 30862, and amending it in 2017 with Resolution 31770. The procedures for the evaluation of City real property for reuse and disposition established a uniform evaluation process, as well as a standard method of classifying and reporting the status of City-owned property. Policies and procedures highlights:

All City-owned property is tracked in a Real Property Asset Management Information System (RPAMIS).

Properties are classified by use and status, with periodic reviews by the jurisdictional department.

Property declared excess by a department initiates an internal and external review process, managed by Real Estate Services.

The public has multiple opportunities for input throughout the review process.

The City Council ultimately makes final decisions on the reuse or disposition of each excess property.